Shiny! Our new outreach cart

Our new outreach cart

Our new outreach cart

You know how to brighten up the Friday of Dead Week?  Getting your new outreach cart delivered to your office!  Even better? Getting it hand-delivered by the senior Engineering students who designed and built it from scratch with their own hands!

We were inspired in part by the Mobile Library cart at Claremont colleges. The initial inspiration came from the small group we have exploring makerspaces and maker culture.  That group is headed up by my colleague Margaret, who really deserves most of the credit fort this project.  She developed the initial plan and proposal here, and talked to people all over the library to figure out all of our requirements.  We found out that the OSU Press unit had an interest in it as an outreach tool, a number of our teaching librarians would use it to participate in outreach events around campus as well as the the Maker group, which has plans to do popup maker spaces.

Display area in front, storage in back

Students in the School of  Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU complete a Senior Capstone design project. They choose from a pool of projects that have been submitted, and then work in groups with the clients who submitted the projects to bring the final product to life.  Margaret created the proposal for this cart and submitted it to the school for consideration.  We were lucky enough to have one of the groups choose our project.  Margaret met with them throughout the process, answering questions as they came up and managing the sometimes complicated financial end of things (we paid for the project out of the research and project fund attached to my professorship).

Battery + power

You can see the display area across the front for Press books, 3-D printed objects, or whatever.  It’s lockable, if needed.

There’s a battery in there too.  It has power enough to run a laptop, and to support the maker activities.  Although, we were told that its ability to run a hair dryer for long “depends on the hair dryer.”

It’s waterproof.  We are in western Oregon after all.  The students tested it by pouring water on it for several minutes – to simulate a steady and significant rain.

Along the back side, there’s a storage drawer and a pretty significant storage cupboard for maker materials, extra books, a laptop, the 3-D printer – whatever is needed.

I’m so excited – they did such a great job. And it’s pretty cool to have something to support learning that was itself the product of a significant learning experience.  But, at the end of the day, the best part of the whole thing is always getting to meet the students.  Because they’re awesome.  And this is a public thank-you to Margaret for making it happen and for including me in that part of it.

What? So What? Now What?

So last week I was at the First-Year Experience conference in San Diego a couple of weeks ago.  There were many highlights — starting with a conference that is actually in my time zone, to my excellent walking commute –

View of the Little Italy sign in San Diego, California

Walking commute from Little Italy to the conference hotel

– to the views from the conference hotel.

View towards the harbor from the Manchester Grant Hyatt in San Diego

trust me, this wasn’t even one of the best ones

Another highlight came in a late session by Catherine Sale Green and Kevin Clarke from the University 101 program at the University of South Carolina.  I wasn’t the only OSU person at this conference (far from it).  After I got back to campus, I was helping Ruth, who coordinates our FYE, with an info session for faculty thinking of applying to teach FYS next year and she started to say “what? now what….” and I finished with “so what” – because while it was a content-rich session, that short phrase was probably the most memorable part of it.

What?

It’s a guide to help students with reflective writing. Three simple questions to answer.

So what?

It probably won’t shock anyone to know that I find reflective writing pretty easy. It’s a reason this blog exists, and definitely a reason for the tagline. While the actual writing of some reflective documents (teaching philosophies, anyone?) kills me as dead as anyone, the how and the why of reflective writing has never been difficult for me.

Honestly, when I realized that it doesn’t come easily for every one (or even for most people) I started to feel more than a little narcissistic.  I realized that pretty quickly once I started teaching — I’d assign the kinds of reflective writing prompts I used to see in classes, and I’d get back papers where the students really struggled with trying to figure out the right answers, or what I wanted to hear, but that lacked any real reflection of their own thinking.  The problem is, when you’ve never had to (ahem) reflect on how to do something or why to do it — it’s super hard to figure out how to help people who are struggling.

What I like about these three questions is how they start with something relatively simple — description is usually straightforward — what happened, what did you do, what did you notice, what did you learn, and so forth.  But they don’t let students end there.  They push to more complex analysis — why does that thing matter?  And then they push beyond that to something equally challenging (what does it mean for you) that, if students do it successfully, will also demonstrate the value of reflection or metathinking itself.

Now what?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Well, here’s the thing – I will undoubtedly teach credit courses again and when I do I will undoubtedly assign reflective writing.  So this is going to help me there, in its intended context I have no doubt

But I also think this is a fantastic way to think about the process of analyzing and evaluating information.  We all know I don’t like checklists when it comes to teaching evaluating.  Truthfully, I’ll argue against any tool that tries to make a complex thing like evaluation simple (seriously – it’s at the top of some versions of Bloom’s! The top!)

And I’ll argue against any tool or trick that suggests you can evaluate all types of information the same way without context and without… yes… reflection, on your own needs, your own message, and your own rhetorical situation.  That’s my problem with checklists.  At best, they are useful tools to help you describe a thing.

An example — the checklist asks, “who’s the author?”  The student answers – William Ripple.  That’s descriptive, nothing more.  But think about it with all three questions.

Some rights reserved by Gouldy99 (flickr)

What?  The author of this article is William Ripple.

So what? Pushed to answer this question – the student will have to do some additional research.  They will find that William Ripple is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Forestry, and the director of the Trophic Cascades program.  He has conducted original research and authored or co-authored dozens of articles examining the role of large predators in ecological communities.

Now what? This question pushes the student to consider their own needs — what they’re trying to say, who they’re trying to convince and what type of evidence that audience will find convincing.

Now, move away from that fairly obvious checklist item and let’s consider a more complicated one, bias.

I’ve linked here before to this old but still excellent post explaining why identifying bias is not evaluation.  And yet, we all know that this is still where a lot of students are in their analysis — they want facts, bias is a reason to reject a source. But bias is no different than author – identifying it, being able to describe it, that’s not evaluation.

What?  I actually think this one could be a step forward in itself — instead of just saying a source is biased, a good answer will specify what that bias is, and what the evidence for it is.

So what? This could push a student to consider how that bias affects the message/argument/ validity of the piece.

Now what? And this is the real benefit — what does this mean for me? How does this bias affect my use of the source, how will my audience read it, how might it help me/ hinder me as I communicate my message?

Now, of course, a student could answer the questions “this source is biased, that matters because I need facts, so I will throw it out and look for something that says what I already believe.”  That could still happen.  And probably will sometimes.  But I like the idea of teaching evaluation as a reflective process, grounded in a rigorous description and examination of a source.

From the archives – the librarian can’t find the best source

This post from Lauren Pressley really resonated with me – particularly her note that not-blogging promotes not-blogging because when you don’t blog often you feel pressure to come up with something really great:

If you blog rarely, every blog post counts. It might be the last one left up over the course of a few months. :) And if it’s on the front page of your site for a few months, it better be pretty darn compelling.

I’m sure that it may come as a surprise to many who have noticed how difficult I find it to keep this blog up to date that I used to blog in two places.  I was never really pulling my weight over there, but I used to blog with Rachel and Caleb over at Command-f.info.

Command-f doesn’t exist any more, but the thing is that I had some posts I really, really liked over there.  So I’m going to move a couple of them over here before they’re lost to me forever.  (Yay Wayback Machine!).  Sadly, I fear the two-part Batgirl epic is no more.

This was the first post I made on Command-f, in August of 2008.  I’m reposting exactly as it appeared then, except for updating a few links.

I don’t feel like I hear nearly the emphasis on “the best source” as I used to, but I still do hear people frame “library sources” and “other sources” as if they are something different, and if there’s something superior about one. It relates to what I was saying in the Good Library Assignments posts about the desire I see in both students and faculty to use library collections as a shortcut for quality.

And I think it also relates to conversations like this one at The Ubiquitous Librarian, where I can’t be the only librarian to think that the students’ problem here wasn’t with difficult interfaces so much as a lack of understanding of research as an iterative, knowledge-creating process.  Not a matter of figuring out how to retrieve “the best source” so much as being able, cognitively and dispositionally, to be inspired to think about new things they see in the sources they find.

So – back to the past…

command-f logo

July 4, 2008 – 12:26 am by anne-marie

So this has been bothering me for a while and I haven’t been sure how to talk about it. It’s the phrase “the best source.” As in, “Google’s great for some things but librarians can really teach you how to find the best source on your topic.”

So I started really thinking about this one day at LOEX of the West when someone suggested that librarians involved in Open Access advocacy and instruction librarians are sometimes working against each other because open access advocates advocate using sources that are openly accessible and instruction librarians want people to use — the best sources. Now, I consider myself an open access advocate and a pretty good instruction librarian and I hadn’t been feeling that tension. I realized that I don’t think I do teach people to find “the best source” or even “the best sources.”

Really – I don’t even know what that phrase means.

Now, a couple of caveats here – I am not a very good relativist. I have been smacked down around a lot of seminar tables by smart people and foolish people alike for not being a very good relativist. I have had to learn to embrace the fact that my relativism has limits. So when I say “I don’t know what the best source means” it is not because “best” is a relative absolute term and I just don’t believe in that.

Two, I understand the concept of the seminal source. I don’t love the adjective but I get the phrase. I believe in it. I have had some transcendent academic experiences when I read an article, a book – some source that not only got me thinking in a new way, but that unlocked a whole discourse for me because by understanding it I had a framework to understand all kinds of things that came later.

(The Female World of Love and Ritualby Carol Smith Rosenberg. Signs – 1975. Such hard work. So changed my ideas about what history could be)

But that’s not what we talk about in libraries when we talk about “the best source.” And seriously, some of the most impact-heavy sources are also some of the most criticized and challenged. Two seconds on Google and you can find about a million references like this summary of the Big Six Information Needs step: The best source answers the exact research question or problem at the appropriate depth and breadth.

I don’t know what we even mean when we say things like that. And this honestly isn’t my snide hipstery “what would that even look like” voice. I am really asking – in the context of a real search, or a real information need – what would that even look like? Help me understand.

See, to me, the best source on a project is the source that gets you thinking — it sparks the idea, the understanding, or the connection that shows you where you’re going. You haven’t finished thinking yet and you haven’t finished writing yet – but you shift from “omg I’ll never get this done” to knowing what it is you want to say. It’s going to be entirely different from project to project and from person to person. If we could obliviate! memories and give the exact same person the exact same project and the exact same resources I’m guessing they would be pretty likely to find inspiration in a different place the second time around.

When Kate and I spoke about peer review at LOEX of the West, I’d say that our best source was this one article by David Solomon. His framework discussing five roles that journals play in scientific communities was what really pushed us where we needed to be in terms of framing the discussion. He cited another source, which we ended up using just as much in our final paper – so Solomon’s influence wouldn’t even be immediately apparent if you couldn’t get inside our brains but that doesn’t change the fact that for us, in our preparation, that source was probably the best source for us to find.

The point is that drilling down to the best source doesn’t match any kind of search process I’m familiar with. It doesn’t match how I see people exploring or discovering. It doesn’t match how I see people learning. But we say it so much – I’ve got to believe that it’s me that’s missing something. What are the situations and scenarios where we need to refine and refine – to add ANDS and ORs and parentheses until we have identified the single perfect source that answers our research question? What kind of searching is that – what kind of information need allows us to make that determination in advance of the learning, the synthesis, the analysis and the creation? What kind of learning process allows us to reject source after source as not worthy, and to keep those unworthy sources from sparking our thinking?

If I’m not missing anything, I think we need to really let the “best source” thing go. And not in the relativistic sense that there is no best. But to stop using it reflexively and un-reflectively. We need to really think about what kinds of systems, tools, lessons and conversations we can have with people to help them connect to their best sources.

Because I hope it’s clear that I think that there are best sources, but they’re slippery beasts. They can’t be discovered by drilling down, by narrowing and focusing, or by limiting oneself to a pre-selected pool of “best” resources. Well they can, but that’s not the easy way to do it and I think it’d take some dumb luck.

The easy way is still pretty hard. It involves a constant give and take of exploring and evaluating and I think it might be made harder by some of our tools. A lot of our systems in libraries are really good at getting the user to one thing, and not so good at supporting the kind of exploring and evaluating I’m talking about.

I’m looking at the catalog here – at the Virtual Reference Summit here in Oregon recently David Lankes said that the library catalog is the inventory record most organizations hide – and it is.

It’s the inventory record designed to help us distinguish all our stuff from all our other stuff. It is best at helping us find this book and distinguish this book from that book and that other book over there. It’s not as good at helping us explore and draw connections.

Is what the catalog does well, and has always done well, shaping how we think about searching and learning and exploring? Maybe it is. Maybe as a part of all of these conversations about the next generation of catalogs we can also take some time to re-think the idea of the best source.

Good library assignments, part final

So we left off with the idea that research is scary and difficult, that it’s much easier to follow a familiar path than to try something new. I think the last two truisms really get at the place where all three of those factors that students need to be research-brave converge: affect, skills and practicalities.

Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.

Part of this, I think, is because many students don’t come to college with the idea that research is something is a learning process – in their experience, it’s been more like a stringing together quotes process. But to really get the learning process idea, I think, you have to think about knowledge as something that is constructed, not discovered and you also have to think you have the capacity to construct it yourself. That’s a pretty advanced way of thinking about knowledge — it’s where we want them to get as they become information literate.

A lot of courses have objectives that fall into the “learn about X” category — if you think that “learning” means “find out the truth from an authority,” then it can be hard to see a research paper as a part of that. But even with smaller concepts – a lot of what we require for academic research writing can seem to be more of a hoop you jump through within the boundaries of a class, not something you’ll carry forward out of the academic environment.

Here’s an example. I do a guest bit in a class for beginner engineers every year (and every year I panic about it because I am not an engineer and every year it turns out to be delightful — you’d think I’d learn). This year, though, I had some legit reasons to panic because the faculty member asked me to spend 10 minutes or so teaching them about citations and plagiarism.

(She didn’t put that time limit on it, that was just the amount of time more than I had from last year — and she also didn’t mind when I spent more time on it — this isn’t a war story — just a note about where my head was).

So anyway, I had just read Project Information Literacy’s great report on the First Year Out data — explaining how new graduates face information problems in the workplace. I was very struck by their finding that a lot of new employees know that they were hired with an expectation that people their age are good at technology and that they therefore feel a they should be doing things quickly and online.

So to do this plagiarism thing, I broke the students into groups of 3 and had them do a think-trio-share thing. I told them to imagine that they were in an internship at a company they really wanted to work for. They’d just been given their first task — something like researching a new scheduling software tool for the team to use — and they were going to be expected to write a report in a week with a recommendation.

I asked them if they agreed with my assumption that their new boss would draw some conclusions about them from the results of this – the first major project they delivered — they agreed. So then, I asked them to think about how they’d like their new boss to describe them, based on their work on this project. I told them each to come up with 5 adjectives. And then in groups I asked them to come to consensus on 3 that they thought were really important. Then I asked them to do it again – but this time think of what they would like their new boss to know about their process – about how they approach a task. Then they came up and wrote their words on the board – if someone else had the same one, they wrote over it. Kind of a low-tech tag cloud.

Unfortunately, I am disorganized and did not take a photo. But the words were pretty great – a combination of: articulate, decisive, open-minded, out-of-the-box thinker, creative, comprehensive, critical, concise, thorough, efficient, resourceful, smart, intelligent and so on.

(“technology savvy” and “fast on the Internet” did not come up – which I do not think undercuts PIL’s finding at all — I think in the safe confines of the classroom, they didn’t think those things mattered – which is not the same thing at all as being in a job where you know you’re expected to be a technological whiz-kid)

So then we talked about how the sources they chose to consult would/could communicate these things about them as an employee, and about their work process. I said that’s a major reason we cite – to present a particular picture of ourselves. And then we shifted into a conversation about what types of sources would help them do this for the assignment they had in that class.

So how does this connect to anything? Well, one of the major outcomes of this particular class is that students will develop basic skills they need to work as a professional in the field of environmental engineering. Now, think about the plagiarism thing. The professor wasn’t asking me to talk about that as it connected to that outcome. Her main focus was good citations in her class projects, right? And there’s nothing wrong with that. But taught that way – then citations (and implicitly, the sources you choose) become just another hoop you have to navigate in school projects – that are totally disconnected from anything that might extend beyond.

A lot of our courses have an explicit connection to beyond — they’re intended to teach people to think and communicate like an historian, a rangeland ecologist, a soil scientist, an environmental engineer, and so on. And in libraries we think (I believe) that most of what we have to teach should support our students in what they do in the classroom and beyond. So, lay those connections bare, is what I’m saying.

(I was talking about this activity in a workshop for faculty in another context and one small group started talking about how they could take this premise for talking about citations and build on it – how they could bring in examples of professional writing that students could analyze to see what types of sources are used in the field – or to include that concept in questions to guest speakers.)

Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

One of our learning technology people told me years and years ago when we were chatting about teaching that he believes we shouldn’t force students to make too many choices to be successful — that if you want to give them freedom to choose a topic, then you should provide a lot of structure in terms of form – and so on. That’s kind of like a rule, but it has stuck with me.

See, I’m pretty good at interpreting assignments – actually, I’m pretty great at it. I didn’t stress out much when it came to predicting what teachers were really looking for, what would make them happy — I knew what they wanted to see. I actually enjoyed the unstructured “I can’t wait to see what you all come up with” types of assignments. But I realized in library school that I’m way in the minority there – that for others, these free for alls are incredibly stressful.

Here’s the thing – a lot of people who go into academia are pretty good at school. And a huge part of being good at school is knowing what’s really being asked for. I am guessing that a lot of professors probably loved getting to play with ideas and sources and concepts when they were students, and were good at it. And then we become professors and we want to design the exciting, enriching assignments we would have wanted as students. But in many cases we weren’t typical students – what we wanted wasn’t what everyone else wanted or needed?

I read an article years ago about the writing classroom where the teacher (I think she was a middle school teacher) asked the class to re-write a short story they’d just read from a different character’s perspective. I am pretty sure that I would have adored this assignment in the sixth grade — that’s just how my brain works. But the class pretty much crashed and burned. Instead of giving up on the assignment, or on them, she broke it down into a series of smaller exercises that helped the students re-frame the story, empathize with different characters and – and this is important – develop the confidence to create something themselves that was going to stand alongside (in their minds) the original story by a “real author.”

It is important to remember what a huge step it is to feel confident enough to say “no one else seems to be interpreting these facts this way, but this is what makes sense to me and I’m confident in my analysis and evidence.” Talk about unpacking – that’s a career’s worth of information literacy development embedded in that one sentence. And this brings us back to where we ended yesterday — that a huge part of what we do is give students the courage to take risks. Is it a good idea to ask them to do that in every stage of a multilayered project?

One concrete place where I really think this all comes together is the topic selection phase — a place were many students don’t get much guidance — and a place where many research projects fail. Not only do the affective dimensions loom really large at this stage, but topic selection is also a skill (that requires domain knowledge). And at the same time, there’s a hefty dose of practicality in play — you’re going to be judged by someone else, that means figuring out their rules.

For this, I’m going to turn to Project Information Literacy again – their 2010 paper on how students use information in the digital age has a great section on barriers students face and for many of those students (like, easily most) the biggest barrier is “getting started.” The finding here is that students approach topic selection extremely aware of the fact that they are navigating a host of unstated expectations on the part of their teacher — not just in terms of “that’s interesting” (or not) but from a much deeper and more complex level — “that’s a topic that will (or won’t) let you do the kind of analysis and use the kinds of sources I expect to see here.” It says they think of this as a gamble:

Instead, for many students we interviewed, course-related research was difficult because it was more akin to gambling than completing college-level work. Yes, gambling. The beginning of research is when the first bets were placed. Choosing a topic is fraught with risk for many students. As one student acknowledged in interviews: either a topic worked well or it failed when it was too late to change it.

In the last couple of terms a colleague and I have been experimenting with the information literacy models in our FYC class to see if we can’t improve them. We started out looking at delivery platforms, but something we saw during our assessment that term led us down the rabbit hole of curiosity and getting started. So this last term, we took five sections and built in a set of activities where they browsed for topics. Their course instructors sent them to ScienceDaily, and then led them through a process of topic selection. I wouldn’t say this was uncritically successful — there are things we want to tweak – but successful it definitely was. But one of the most striking things about the process was actually the conversations we had with the instructors before where they confirmed, from their experience, that yes – topic selection is super scary and stressful for students and for some, it’s a barrier they can’t overcome.

20130816-082429.jpg

I think activities and assignments that focus entirely on that crucial first step — what kinds of questions do people ask in this field – would be fantastic. But if you want to do a more fully-fledged research project in a class, then building in activities that provide structure, feedback and hopefully spark interest during the topic-selection stage are crucial. Browsing is a great way to get started with this — structured, guided, useful browsing that will expose students to sources and ideas they haven’t seen before. This is a map that some colleagues and I created for a workshop – we wanted a visual that would help students start to understand the scope and extent of research happening on our campus. We started the workshop with a browsing activity – and I think a lot of students would have stayed there the whole time if we’d let them.

Conclusion

I wouldn’t say I have any strong, definitive conclusions here — the closest thing to a big-c Conclusion is I think the idea that helping students take risks is what we need to do — and that our assignments should be authentic enough to make them take those cognitive or affective risks, but structured enough to give them what they need to be successful in their risk-taking.

But the workshop this was in service of happened, and the conversations were great. And I just checked back on my three strains of thought and while they may not have fully cohered — they’re all here in some way. So I’m calling this a win. Thanks for coming along with me.

Good Library Assignments, part 2

So if bad assignments are not better than nothing – what makes them good? Not what are the rules of good assignments, because tired of rules, but yes, there are some principles, or maxims or truisms that come to mind.

I bet these aren’t all of them either, but they are the ones I’ve synthesized from my thinking:

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Right now, I’m thinking about the first four. In fact, I would say the things on this list are a little bit apples and oranges. The first two are obviously coming from those assignments that throw in a “use the library” requirement, or a “use peer reviewed sources” requirement, or a “you must use print journal articles” requirements or even a “you must use ERIC” requirement.

(Though that print articles thing is getting a little long in the tooth. I know, I know, it still happens but not like it used to)

The next two are getting at some reasons why I think that faculty add those requirements.

So let’s dig in a little more and think about how these themes mesh with what we know about how students use information, go about research, and approach assignments.

Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.

The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.

As I said, these are mostly about requirements within assignments, and I think the more interesting place to examine them is in the reasons why. But I also think that these cover those — “I just want them to go to the library and touch the books” assignments. And here’s the thing – those assignments don’t work either.

A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time reading about library anxiety, which is a topic that I find resonates well with faculty audiences. At least a little of this is because of the Library Anxiety Scale – because that scale has been tested and validated and used in many circumstances it means when I say “we know” it gives me a familiar type of expertise — we know, because in my field, we have done this research.

The two features of library anxiety that I tend to emphasize are these:

  1. It’s situational – like white coat hypertension – it only kicks in in certain situations. And those situations? When students actually need to use the library to complete a task or solve a problem. On my campus, everyone studies in the library (no, not really, but we’re packed most of the time). But the way library anxiety works means that a student could come to the library every single night, could have “their” own chair, or carrel or study room and still, as soon as they actually had to use the library to write a research paper, destructive anxiety could kick in.
  2. It’s characterized by a sense of “I should know this” – accompanied by a sense of “everyone else does know this.”

Given these realities, it’s pretty easy to see why an assignment that is designed to get students into the library to touch the resources isn’t going to help. And if it’s an ill-designed assignment, where they’re not going to find the thing they need to touch – then it’s going to do damage.

And even if we have the stuff, if the assignment is written in such a way that it assumes students have had experiences with information that they have not had (reading paper newspapers), or that they know things they don’t know (research is published in things called journals) — it will make things worse.

When students already think “everyone else knows this but me” then an unfamiliar term like “peer review” or “LC” will send them over the edge. Barbara Fister’s recent post on Inside Higher Ed gets at this point in a much more practical and detailed way.

Feelings matter. In particular, how we feel about our ability to solve problems — our confidence — matters.

The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.

I was working on a book chapter earlier this year – a textbook chapter for composition students. And one of the things that the editor and I had a lot of back and forth about was just this. She was bringing me information from the composition faculty who had reviewed the book about how they wanted this to be simpler, or that to be simpler.

And I would say back, yes I know that they would like X, where X = whatever shortcut we were talking about here: evaluation checklists, peer-reviewed journals ticky boxes, callout boxes explaining why library databases were better — I get these requests too.

I get why people want shortcuts. I really do. Especially in composition where the topics come from across several disciplines and you’re dealing with a whole bunch of discourses that you have no particular experience with — teaching how to find, recognize, use and choose information sources is really hard. I get why they don’t want to fall down the rabbit holes I fall down into when I try to teach “what is peer review and why should you care” quickly and efficiently. But still, at the end of the day, suggesting that there are shortcuts around thinking, evaluating and choosing don’t do students any favors.

I have a couple of short slideshows I use when I want to “show” people how difficult it is to navigate our information landscape as a student.

  • One shows the first page of four different articles. I lead off this one with the question: “which articles were peer-reviewed.”
  • One shows five screenshots of newspaper websites. For this one, the question is “what type of source is this.”

Both of those exercises are designed to illustrate how much we (faculty) already know about information and publishing and how we use that knowledge to make these calls — we’re bringing tacit knowledge to the table that many of our students don’t have.

The last one is a little different. It pulls out a set of sources easily found in library databases — it includes a partisan blog, a news aggregator, a newsletter, a small newspaper and some others. This one is designed to illustrate the no-shortcuts piece.

When I hear faculty complain that “my students just went to Google” I actually wonder how often their students ACTUALLY went straight to the library databases they were told to use? Given that they can easily find Google-like sources using Summon (and Lexis-Nexis, and Academic Search Premier, and so on) it has to be that some of these maligned students actually did use the library. The issue isn’t that they went to Google instead of the library – the issue is that they didn’t know what to do with what they found – and that’s an issue in both contexts.

Requiring something isn’t the same as teaching it

It would be great if we could just require what we wanted and know that students would be able go out and figure out what we meant, what we wanted, how to deliver it — and find the whole process enriching and interesting enough to carry into the future. We all know that’s not realistic.

When it comes to research, though what needs to be taught, and how much time and effort it takes to teach it can come as a surprise. I’ve linked this old post from Dr. Crazy’s excellent blog here more than once – but I think it does such a great job of communicating just how deep the rabbit holes go when you start teaching students about research and information. There are so many unwritten rules that define good practice in academic communication, and so many things we can easily assume are common knowledge — once you start unpacking those things for students, though, you can quickly find yourself lost in a web of “but to understand that, you need to know this — a full day just to teach MLA style? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Library anxiety is one reason why there’s a problem when we don’t unpack the requirements in our assignments, but it’s not the only one. This one looms especially large in those “bad assignments” that are categorized by mis-matches — between the requirements and the students’ ability levels or between the requirements and the point of the assignments themselves.

I’ve talked about student development before, at length, and I won’t do so here but tl:dr – students don’t come to college thinking about knowledge and knowledge creation the same way their teachers do. They’re not supposed to – they’re supposed to develop that way while they’re here. So when we require sources that have one set of epistemological assumptions embedded within them (like peer-reviewed articles) and we don’t unpack those assumptions, then students will try and fit the new sources into their current way(s) of knowing. When the sources don’t fit (as they inherently won’t) then they think the sources are just a series of hoops they have to navigate to make teachers happy.

If you, like me, think there’s value in the work scholars do, this should be worrying.

The thing is, unpacking those assumptions is a huge job — let’s look at the “you must use a peer reviewed article” requirement. This rabbit hole will take you almost all the way to China. To really understand and use these articles you need to know:

  • Scholars do research. Not “research paper” research but other types of original research.
  • Scholars frequently write articles about individual studies, which examine specific things – not every dimension of a topic.
  • Research is usually (but not always) reported in things called journals.
  • Scholars argue, but in a particular way. They aren’t necessarily trying to win (and end) a conversation when they argue — there’s always another question and that’s not a flaw.
  • The same scholars who write the articles in journals also review other people’s articles for quality.
  • When scholars review for quality they don’t repeat the experiment to see if it’s true.
  • Scholars continue examining and evaluating the quality of an article after its published.
  • Scholars belong to professional communities called disciplines.
  • Disciplines develop rules or best practices about conducting and reporting on research.They’re not all the same.

That’s a huge amount to unpack and you can’t really expect students to “get it” if you just mention it it once (even if you do so at length). And it doesn’t even get at the fact that most students don’t have the domain knowledge to read these articles critically.

So a huge part of “good library assignments” if figuring out what you, as the teacher, actually have the capacity to support. Can you devote a full day to teaching MLA citations? Can you spend a week on scholarly knowledge creation?

And there’s still another level to “teaching it” that’s equally important, and just as labor-intensive: feedback. Students need feedback on the choices they make when it comes to information sources and their research process. And they need the opportunity to apply that feedback and try again. Some colleagues and I did a small research-process study last summer (soon to be published in portal, if you’re interested) and our students reported that they rarely get feedback on the sources they choose. And this finding wasn’t a surprise.

Students know how to do school. It’s not hard for them to figure out what really matters — when teachers don’t invest time on the front end explaining a requirement, and don’t give meaningful feedback on the result – they’re quickly going to realize that they don’t need to put any real effort into meeting that requirement. That’s why we hear “as long as you put the web sources fourth or fifth in the bibliography, and the EBSCO sources on top you’ll be fine.”

It’s almost like teachers and students have silently agreed that library databases are going to be shorthand for quality. As long as students go through the motions of using them, then we’ll consider that requirement checked off and focus on other things.

But it doesn’t help them when they actually need information to solve problems or make decisions, and it doesn’t do us any good if they ultimately decide the work that scholars do and that librarians preserve, repackage and make useful is useless.

I was talking to a faculty member who teaches a class for first-years called science myth busters – and told me about an approach he uses that I think has a lot of potential across a lot of disciplines. He spends a full day teaching about the concepts of correlation and causation before he has students read research articles (and news reports about research). Then, when they read the articles, they analyze them — just on that concept. They consider how the news reporters understand it, and how the scholars talk about it.

What I love about this is that it gives the students a structure they can use to start to approach these sources like someone engaged in knowledge creation would — it gives them language they can use, and a concrete task to complete. It’s manageable for the instructor, and it’s meaningful for the student. And many fields or areas of study have key concepts that could be used in a similar way.

See, Project Information Literacy (and about a million other studies) tell us that students tend to stick with what they know. Once they have a research-process hammer, then they’ll try and turn every research problem into a nail. They’ll stick with the same type of sources, with the same research tool, with the same processes and methods. They port them from high school and will only adapt them as they need to.

I think a huge part of what we’re (the big we – the higher ed we) are about is getting them to expand beyond what they’ve done before- to consider different types of evidence, more complex processes and to build a bigger toolbox. But trying something new is scary. Feelings matter – and we have to create an environment that makes them feel they can do it. Skills matter – we have to give them the tools to do it. And practicalities matter – it has to be worth their while to do it too.

There will be one more part – hopefully tomorrow — but I’m heading out for some Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a few hours so it might be Monday.

lifelong learning

In our strategic planning meetings there has been some pushback against the phrase (not the idea) of lifelong learning – the feeling exists that we’ve been using this phrase so long in libraries that it’s starting to lose some meaning.

I saw a couple of things today that got me thinking about this phrase more concretely – not just in terms of what it should mean, but also in terms of what it really means for a university (or a university library) to support it.

First, Karen muses on Coursera, not from an “OMG the future of higher ed” and not from an “OMG the sky is falling” perspective — but from the perspective of someone actually taking one of the courses as a, yes, lifelong learner:

It’s funny, we pretty much give up on learning things once we graduate and get jobs.  Or at least, there’s no further cultural support for continuing to take classes unless they’re Crossfit or cooking. When really, taking classes is one of the most awesome things in the world.

Then, a little bit later you’d think I was reading thoughts from Ta-Nehisi Coates about football fandom at The Atlantic, but really, I’m reading about lifelong learning again.

I’ll be pulling together a bibliography of sources which I hope to consult while pulling together this piece. I started with Clifford Geertz’s “Notes On The Balinese Cockfight.” This is the sort of thing that normal educated people read in undergrad. But again, I would not have been ready for this at 18. I am delighted to take it in at 36, an age where my tastes are a little broader, and my excitement flames high.

I did read this article as an undergrad and while I remember it, and I’m pretty sure I liked it, I didn’t get as much out of it as I got out of other texts and conversations.  I understand that one of the reasons why I was required to read lots of stuff as an undergrad was that every piece isn’t going to have that impact on you at the moment when it’s assigned and the best way to ensure that students do get those life- and perspective-changing moments is to make sure they read lots and lots and lots of potentially transformative stuff.

But it got me thinking – how great would it be if there was a way we could revisit some of the stuff we read as undergrads, to think about it again with all of the experience and perspective we could bring to it now?

Those of us who think and write about learning think and write about the importance of reflection, and metacognition, on the learning process.  On my campus we talk about figuring out how to get students to reflect on their gen ed experience, to reflect on their major experience, to reflect on all of the different learning experiences they have in college — because that reflection is essential to the learning process.

So much of what we try and teach and do in higher education is create a framework for lifelong learning – so many people say to me that they didn’t really understand the point of a particular course, or assignment or even whole field of study until long after they left school.  That’s one of the things that makes assessment in higher education so tough.  It makes me wonder how much the conversations recently about how higher education must change – should be focusing less on today’s students and more on what we could be doing for yesterday’s.

 

 

What I will be doing at the end of October

So this summer has been all kinds of crowded in terms of my schedule, but one of the best pieces has been working with the executive board of the Oregon chapter of ACRL to plan the fall conference we host every other year (trading off with our friends in ACRL-WA).

Things are finally coming together (largely because the Board is just an awesome group of people to work with) and I’m getting so excited for the final result.

We have a title!  Libraries Out Loud: New Narratives of Enduring Change

We are going to have exciting, thought-provoking keynote addresses by Barbara Fister and Char Booth.

(Two people who, if you asked me “name 10 people you would choose to provoke your thoughts” would totally be right up at the top half of the list).

Local copyright maven Rachel Bridgewater is going to lead everyone in a meaty, substantive discussion and activity about the Code for Best Practices in Fair Use for Academic and Research Libraries, and we’re going to be (virtually) joined in that by the people from ARL and the Center for Social Media who put that document together).

There will be poster sessions, and lightning talks and a party- and it all happens in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Columbia River Gorge.

October 25-26, 2012.  Registration opens soon!

View over the Columbia River

(Photo by flickr user Nietnagel)

If you don’t use peer-reviewed sources you’ll be SO grounded!

I have more writing to do right now than I have time, so it has of course become vitally important to write this blog post that has been buzzing at the back of my brain RIGHT NOW.

My life as a parent isn’t a big topic of conversation on this blog, but a little background is needed here.  One of the reasons I don’t talk much about my family in this space is because one of the complexities of adoption is learning how to talk about your experiences while respecting the fact that your child has her own story and her own experiences and only she gets to decide when and where and how to share that story.  Part of this journey is her story alone, part of it is ours.  And some of it is mine and Shaun’s – and this post is coming from that part.

So one of the things that happens when you navigate the adoption process is that you take way more classes and trainings about parenting than you probably otherwise would.  Some of these are to really learn things and some are to show how interested and committed you are to being a good parent.

This wasn’t an awful thing – if you’re like me (and like Shaun) you can find something to chew on in almost any class and these classes were full of enough brain development data and learning theory and interesting personalities that even when the classes didn’t totally work, the after-class conversations were pretty awesome.

Still, two almost identical Love and Logic classes was a lot, even for us.  Like many self-help-y or how-to-y type things that develop huge and devoted followings – L&L is based on some fairly simple ideas which are then applied in many ways.  In parenting-class world that means many, many sessions reinforcing the same basic concepts.  In taking-the-same-class-twice parenting class world, well…. this is a long intro to explain why my brain has had many hours to connect those simple concepts to many things.

milk spilled on a wood laminate countertopSo the basic premise of love and logic is grounded in the idea of natural consequences (and empathy, but this post is really more about the natural consequences part).

In other words, the idea is that kids learn best when they have to face the authentic, real, organic consequences of their choices.  Artificial consequences that aren’t connected to the choice the kid made (most routine punishments fit in this category — taking away TV privileges for breaking a window = consequences that are probably unrelated to the bad choice) just seem arbitrary and capricious and the kid ends up blaming you (or whoever imposed the consequence) instead of their own bad choices — which does nothing to teach them not to make bad choices in the first place.

Here’s the basic L&L mantra:

  1. Give your child a task you know they can handle.
  2. Hope they mess up.*
  3. Let empathy + natural consequences do the teaching.
  4. When the opportunity arises let them try again.

*Note:  the debater in me never came to terms with the “hope they mess up” part.  There were parents in my classes who really hated this line and who also hadn’t quite grasped the “learning comes from mistakes” piece.  I did grasp that part – that’s the part of this I like — but that doesn’t mean you have to actively hope they mess up.  I mean, take it to its logical conclusion.  If my kid never, ever, ever messes up — there’s no bad outcome.  Yes, they may not have learned from mistakes, but those mistakes also never happened so she either learned some other way or didn’t need that learning.  So I debate-proved to myself that I don’t have to actively hope she makes mistakes, I just have to be sure I see the value when she does.**

**Second Note: Seriously, we spent NINETY minutes on this concept in one class session.  It is not my fault I thought about it this much.

Like many of the simple ideas that turn into Something Big, this is a fairly compelling argument.  This was one of the pieces of Love and Logic that worked for me pretty well, which isn’t to say it all did – I have some real problems with some of the other concepts connected to this that I can go on about at length, but won’t here.

And while natural consequences is a L&L cornerstone, it’s by no means limited to that set of books and workshops — this is a concept with legs, that comes up over and over, generally as part of a larger idea that lecturing doesn’t work.

And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of library instruction.  And not just because we have an knee-jerk anti-lecture response at this point too.

I’ve been thinking about it because I think it highlights that we spend a LOT of our time “lecturing” – even if we do it with clickers.  Because lecturing in this context doesn’t mean just “talking,” “broadcasting” or other words that essentially mean “one-way communication” — which is generally what we mean by “lecturing” in the classroom context.

No, in this context, “lecturing” means explaining the consequences of bad choices instead of demonstrating them.  And I think we do that a lot.

Not in the steps — we do a good job of letting our students discover the consequences of choosing the wrong database, or choosing the wrong search terms — within the parameters we set up and the assumptions we’re making about what they need to know we have developed lots of ways to help them discover and learn for themselves.

No, I’m talking about in the big picture — in the WHY should they do these things at all part — that’s where we’re lecturing.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone raise this type of question on ILI-L –

“how can I convince my students that they really need to be using these sources?”

or

“how can I convince my students that there will be consequences if they don’t cite properly?”

And what’s the subtext here?  It’s — how can I convince my students not to make mistakes?

Because here’s the thing — our teaching in libraries is more similar to the type of teaching parents do than I ever thought it was.  Yes, parents can impose plenty of consequences themselves on the day to day level —  “no tv until you finish your homework” but the ultimate goal for most parents goes beyond finishing the homework tonight – they’re looking to raise up kids who can learn stuff, and who are organized to get stuff done and who can go off to college or out into the world and meet deadlines and achieve goals, and am I right?

And library instructors can impose some consequences when the students are actually in the library class – that’s basic classroom management stuff.  Yes, some are better at it than others and we never have the power that the grade book or the parental relationship gives – but we are in a position of some power in that context.  But that in-class power, that’s not the real goal.  We’re looking to teach skills and concepts that students can take with them out in to the “real world” and use to be successful and get stuff done — just like parents.

And this is also a reason why it’s not like regular classroom teaching.  The regular classroom has a more immediate set of primary goals than lifelong learning.  Yes, I suspect that many, many teachers have life long learning as a goal — I certainly did when I taught history.  But the fact that that was a primary goal for me was also a big reason why I stopped teaching history and went into libraries.

I expect that most teachers would prefer that their students cite sources properly in all of their classes. They have a commitment to producing good students in the major, and good graduates of the institution, but that doesn’t have to be their primary goal in a classroom interaction.  In my own class, I can say “two points off your grade for every MLA formatting mistake” and then I can MAKE THAT BE TRUE.*  I might hope that the impact of that is that they use MLA perfectly in their next class, but mainly, I don’t want to struggle through improperly formatted citations in the papers I have to grade.

*Note:  I do not ever do this.

So what are we doing when we say “how can I convince my students…. “?  We’re talking about consequences that we have no control over — we’re talking about those life consequences.  We’re talking about all of those things that we know because we have more life experience (and more college experience) and if they would just LISTEN to us they could avoid those mistakes. But here’s the thing – I think maybe we should be letting those happen.

And I think this not just because I think it would be good for the learning — I also think this because of what it would mean for us.

Take First Year Student X – coming into OSU with a gaudy 4.0 GPA from a decent high school, has never had any trouble at all getting A’s on her research papers using her favorite library sources — books and the online Encyclopedia Britannica.  She’s never read an academic journal and she thinks of “peer review” as trading papers with a classmate and making comments.

How much energy do I have to spend to “convince” her that she needs to use peer-reviewed sources in her college research papers?

Alternatively, what happens if this highly motivated, intelligent student turns in a paper sourced from the encyclopedia, her textbook, and some 15 year old monographs from the library’s stacks?  Probably two options — she gets negative feedback on her sources by her instructor or she doesn’t.

if she does?  She’s going to learn from her mistakes. And I can help her get where she needs to be much more effectively. If she doesn’t – then no amount of energy spent by a librarian to convince her that she REALLY needs to use different sources will make a difference.

Now see my first extra note above and don’t get me wrong – I don’t actually want my students to make mistakes. I would prefer they make the choices I would prefer they make. I think using a variety of interesting sources, including those that represent more than opinion or anecdote, is important and I want students to do that. I’m all for giving those students who are ready to learn to do things in a new way the information they need to do so.  What I am saying is that I think we’re spending a lot of energy in library instruction trying to ensure that all of our students won’t make mistakes when they do research — and that that’s counterproductive.

See, the thing that is the same about parenting is this – it makes a lot of sense to choose those places where your energy is best spent – and it’s just rarely best spent trying to convince your kid that consequences exist when he has never experienced them for himself.  To do this, you have to do a lot of thinking for him and spend a lot of time imposing rules and consequences he’s going to think are arbitrary.  And if you’re going to do that, shouldn’t you wait for a real life-or-death health and safety issue?  Especially when it is so much easier and so much more authentic to convince him that consequences exist after he has experienced them.

And the thing that is different than parenting is this – with the slight exception of natural adult-related authority and good classroom management skills, for us the whole ballgame is what our students do with our teaching after they leave us – whether we’re talking about transcendent information literacy teaching that leads to powerful reflective thinkers and lifelong learners — or just about skills that they can apply to do well on that paper that’s due next week — success or failure for us is hardly ever about what happens when they are in a room with us.  Some of the teaching parents do really is about making life at home, life in the family, better – in library instruction it’s always about making something, somewhere else better.

So I think we need to re-think our relationship to that somewhere else – connect our focus as teachers to what they’re learning, naturally and authentically out there — and not try and teach in advance in the classroom those things that life will teach them better.  And if they’re not learning what they need to from natural consequences, from authentic feedback and meaningful responses to their work — then we need to be working on that level, with their teachers and employers and mentors.

The iConnected Parent, Chapter 3

One thing that I maybe haven’t made clear is that this book isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of this, or any, phenomenon — it’s a parenting book, designed to give advice to parents with kids heading off to college.

Some of my wishes for what might show up in these pages, therefore, should be read as unreasonable.

So, on to Chapter 3. Can College Kids Grow Up on an Electronic Tether?

This is the chapter that should be getting into where we might see connections between this research and the big body of student development research that exists out there.  The authors point out at start that there has been very little research on this specific phenomenon, but there is certainly a lot that we “know” about how students have developed in the past – and I am sure that research informed the present study.

Research question: What happens to the independence of college students who are in constant contact with their parents?

Method: To get at this question, they designed the surveys to also capture information about:

  • students’ psychological development
  • parental involvement in students’ lives
  • relationships between students and parents

The chapter starts by making with the argument that traditionally, students have been able to control the level of contact with parents, and parents have expected that the amount of contact they have with their offspring will go down. That separation from parents is essential for students to develop a mature relationship with their parents — if they stay too connected, then the dynamics that existed in high school won’t get a chance to change.

Most of this initial part is an exhortation for parents to let their students make their own decisions and their own mistakes. This is important not only for the students – who need to develop their own skills and to solve their own problems — but also for the parents.  It is only when the student develops autonomy that they are capable of seeing their parents as people – with with lives that aren’t entirely defined by their children.

Nothing here is cited, but it seems to be heavily informed by Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development.  Chickering’s revised third vector is called Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, and deals with the same issues of connectedness – and how the relationship between student and parent can improve and mature better when there is some autonomy, or separation.

In fact, Chickering’s initial model focused a great deal more on autonomy as leading to independence – it was in a relatively recent revision that he refined this category to recognize the ways that the relationships that students bring with them to college continue — and the ways that these relationships change.  Hence, interdependence. 

(Which I’ve always liked – I like the idea that one of the things we do in college is become capable of bringing more to our relationships – that we can become a source of support to people who have always supported us.)

So – then we move into a summary of results.  And the one-line summary?

…students who have the most frequent contact with their parents are less autonomous than other students.

Evidence? Those students are less likely to hit their benchmarks, according to the standard psychological tests that were embedded in the surveys.

Subtopics examined include: decision making, relationships, self-regulation and parental regulation

Photograph looking up at a college building against a blue sky with the words college of Business on it

some rights reserved by ucentralarkansas (flickr)

Decision Making — The focus in this section is on majors.  Parents are pushing “practical” majors where they can see an immediate employment benefit. Students are asking about other majors, and hearing they should change. At Michigan, only 2 students reported parents steering them away from econ or business, as opposed to many stories where the reverse was true. Of course, all parents aren’t the same – some were described as “not heavy handed” with their advice, others felt they needed to offer perspectives and warnings, even as they encouraged their children to follow their interests.

Student/Parent Relationships – Relationships are generally strong, but the researchers did find that those students who get called the most are more likely to have relationships with their parents that are “fraught” & marked by conflict.  Students who control the contact — who make the calls – report more positive feelings about their parents.  There are also students who are controlling the contact, but who are maybe calling too much – which the researchers describe as “trading independence for closeness.”

Self-Regulation & Parental Regulation — Students with good self regulation (what we might call “time management” and “study skills” in other contexts) get better grades AND report positive feelings about relationships with parents.  Students who reported high levels of parental regulation (parents taking responsibility for the timeliness and/or quality of the students’ work), on the other hand, reported negative outcomes.  Not surprisingly, those who scored high on the “parental regulation” scale also reported high levels of contact with parents.  They also reported MORE trouble with school.  So parental regulation doesn’t just hurt relationships – but in terms of academic success, it doesn’t work.

Conclusions & Advice for Parents

Not surprisingly – the main conclusion of this chapter is that parents need to back off and let their kids grow up.  This will have positive impacts not only on the students’ academic skills and success in college, but also leads to better parent/student relationships.

My reactions

From the start of the chapter, there’s the suggestion that there are two types of students here — those who want more independence, but find that college doesn’t really change anything in terms of the reminders and suggestions and direction they get on a daily basis from parents

AND those who maintain those lines of contact themselves – who actively resist the separation that the research suggests is necessary.

Probably not surprisingly, because of the “this is a guide for parents” nature of the book, the advice is heavily directed towards the first situation.  Parents, after all, can best control their own behavior and it makes sense that the book would focus on those situations where the parents’ behaviors are more problematic.

I was curious what advice they would have for parents who aren’t initiating the contact, but who have kids who are, as they say, sacrificing independence and development for contact.  How can parents diagnose a situation where their student might be relying on them too much?  What are the warning signs that your student is too dependent upon you? And then what do you do about it?  I hope this is addressed more in later chapters.

And the other thing  I found most striking from this chapter was the discussion of majors.  That’s something that I think we need to worry about – exploration is an important part of college and intellectual exploration is one of the most important kinds of exploration students do.  If that’s getting short-circuited, it needs to be addressed.

the iConnected Parent, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 — The Electronic Tether: Communication between Today’s College Students and Their Parents

Summary

We open with Doonesbury articulating the central tension of the book — not helicopter parenting per se, something more along the lines of “we weren’t like this?”

black and white comic strip featuring a man talking to his wife about his daughter

(Note, there’s about a week and a half of strips on this topic if you click the link)

The first study used online surveys and focus groups and compared what students thought would happen with regard to communication with their parents with what actually did.

  • Most students predicted they’d talk to parents about once a week (and focus groups suggested they were looking forward to more independence)
  • Followup surveys showed they were talking to parents an average of 10.4 times per week.

Hofer (and the older students who worked with her, who were just as surprised by the findings) located the source of this change in the ubiquity of cell phones.

The second study tackled the question – is this just a first-term thing, or does it persist? (Yes). The third study looked at students who had taken a gap year – did they report different patterns (No).

The fourth study expanded the population from Middlebury, looking at Middlebury students and students in a very different environment – the University of Michigan.  It also expanded in scope – examining a cohort of students across four years.

The average number of times that families communicated was 13.4 times per week.  Year in school didn’t matter.  Which school didn’t matter.  Variables like income, ethnicity and distance from home had no effect.  Only gender had an effect and it was small (14.5 connections per week for girls, 11.3 for boys).

And this latest study also showed that neither side of this equation (students or parents) was driving the communication – both sides initiated about the same number of calls.  Students indicated a general level of satisfaction with the amount of contact, but believed their parents would want more.  A parent survey was added to see if that was true.  About 30% said they’d like more contact.  88% of parents predicted that their children would report being satisfied with the amount of contact.

Interestingly, there seems to be a tension in when and why students call – sometimes it is because they feel they need the help (more on this in a minute) but another strong theme running through this data is the idea that these phone calls are “entertainment,” “filler,” or “something to do when I’m bored.”

In terms of help, the content of the calls does change over time.  First-year students report needing more academic help — later, the times when help is needed, or offered, tends to cluster around milestones like picking a major, finding an internship, or choosing a career.

Upper-division students are more likely to report conversations where the primary topic is the parents‘ life or work.

My reactions

So, this chapter was akin to the “results” section in a paper — it doesn’t really get into the “do these findings matter” piece — except in the teaser for the next chapter.

It also doesn’t really get into causality beyond the statements at the beginning where they were trying to figure out why the upper-division students involved in the study seemed more similar to the researchers in their expectations and reactions than like their fellow students.

I ended up with more questions than answers — the focus on number of contacts per week doesn’t allow for a lot of subtlety. A lot of the rest of the chapter pointed to ways to complicate these results, without really digging into them enough to actually complicate them –

  • For example, “fix this problem for me” is a pretty different motivator than “I’m bored and I have a half mile to walk until I get to my next class” – particularly if you’re going to then be drawing connections between these behaviors and what we know about student development.
  • Carrying that a little further, looking back to causality, it seems so intuitive as to be hard to examine that the “I’m bored” calls probably ARE tied to the fact that all of a sudden everyone carries around their phone all of the time, playing Angry Birds while walking is kind of hard, AND we don’t have to worry about minutes and charges when we’re talking to family?  The “fix things for me” behaviors on the other hand – those seem to point to a more complex set of causes.
  • Speaking of, I’m reading this book because it’s based, at least in substantial part, on actual research so I am glad that they chose to foreground the rest of the book WITH that research by putting it in chapter 2.  I was going to say here that the numbers still point to many things – as just mentioned the bullet above, but that the anecdotes and stories pulled out of the qualitative data tend towards the “these kids today” narratives that exist in the popular media.  But I’m actually not sure that’s true.  Certainly, the student whose mom had all of the syllabi for his classes and who would call him to make sure he was meeting deadlines, etc. was extreme and vivid and memorable.  But I think there may have been just as many examples of students telling stories like “I always call when I walk to the gym because I know there’s a built-in exit strategy out of the conversation.”
  • Which leads to the last question – I hope later chapters dig more into the connections between the behaviors (making or accepting calls, sending emails, etc) and how students and parents think the others are perceiving those connections — they may be calling at equal rates, but what do those rates mean if you add in feelings of obligation, external motivators (like peer pressure), or all of those times when you wanted to call and didn’t?
  • Finally, I am still hoping friends are part of this discussion, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to be.